Children’s Sci-Fi: Marketing vs. Reality

The top example of “middle grade science fiction,” by some metrics.

Note: this is the third and final companion post to my upcoming podcast episode about children’s sci-fi. I should also note that these results are based specifically on Amazon listings, and I don’t know if they are truly reflective of the industry as a whole. See the first post and second post for background on this one.

The children’s literature market is divided into several smaller markets based on the age of the target audience, and science fiction books are no exception. These audiences already overlap in age (such as 6-10 and 8-12), but if you look at how books are marketed in practice, you see that often, these guidelines are simply not reliable. As I said before, what market a book falls into is just that: marketing, and publishers also have an incentive to market a book broadly rather than narrowly. The result is that if you look at the listings on Amazon (where I researched a fair bit of the upcoming episode), you see a surprising number of books that are listed in the “wrong” category, and it really threw me off for a while. In fact, it was one of several reasons why this episode took so long to make.

I’m writing this post partly so that parents, teachers, and anyone else who is shopping for books for kids can be aware. But mainly, I think the results are really weird and surprising, and I wanted to work out what’s going on. So, let’s get started.

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Reading Levels and the Surprisingly Recent Stratification of Children’s Books

Definitely more recent than this.

Note: this is the second of two three companion posts to Episode 44 of my podcast, Children’s Science Fiction. (I told you, this episode took a lot of research.) For the first post, click here.

Today, children’s books—especially fiction books—are grouped into different markets based on age—chapter books, middle grade, upper middle grade, and so forth. On its face, that sounds sensible, because a fifth-grader is going to be able to read more complex texts than a first grader and will be able to handle a wider range of subject matters. The thing is, this didn’t used to be the case. Little more than a half century ago, you didn’t see those divisions. Instead, there were others; picture books were still distinct, but there were “boys’ books” and “girls’ books” with rather sharper lines between them than we have now. The age-based markets weren’t really a thing.

This was one of the surprising things I learned while researching my upcoming podcast episode on children’s science fiction. Reading level seems like a natural way to divide up books, but that entire paradigm is a fairly new one. It grew up out of the shifts in the children’s book industry in the 80s and 90s. (Or at least, it grew up alongside them. I don’t have direct evidence, here.) During this time, children’s fiction was pushed more in school through the Scholastic Book Fairs, and for schools, children’s publishers (not just Scholastic, but also others like Harper-Collins) began breaking books down by grade level—or rather, by reading level.

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Episode 44 Delayed

Hi all. Unfortunately, I need to delay this week’s episode. Production was already running slow because it’s a long episode with a lot of supplemental material, as evidenced by the bonus blog posts. And, frankly, I’ve been a bit distracted by the Ukraine crisis.

I do have the script written, so I should be able to get Episode 44 up next week. After that, it might a be a new two-week schedule from that date. In the meantime, look for my second supplemental blog post for this episode.

Check out this episode!

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Where Did School Book Fairs Come From?

Like this, but, you know, in a school. (Language may vary.) Credit: Biswarup Ganguly (CC).

Note: in preparing the next episode of my podcast, I had a surprising amount of supplemental material that was kind of off-topic and that I didn’t have time to talk about, so I decided to save it for the blog. This is the first of two companion posts to the upcoming Episode 44: The Children’s Sci-Fi Renaissance.


If you’re American and under the age of 40, then you probably remember the Scholastic Book Fairs. (And I suppose a lot of the rest of you if you have kids under the age of 40.) If you’re not familiar, book fairs are book sales that are done in schools (usually primary schools) where kids can browse new books and buy them—of course in this case mainly books published by the Scholastic Corporation. Book fairs are a longstanding effort to get children reading (and of course get their parents paying) by allowing them to sample new books when might not have the interest or opportunity otherwise. The school also gets a portion of the revenue in exchange for hosting the fair.

Book fairs are big business. Scholastic hosts 120,000 of them across the country every year and has even done virtual book fairs during the pandemic. They’re also where Harry Potter got his American debut. But the thing is, Scholastic didn’t invent them—and that’s not surprising, but what is surprising…is that I can’t for the life of me figure out who did.

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#43 – Solar System Exploration

#46 – Science Fiction Today A Reader's History of Science Fiction

In the final episode of Season 1, we explore the state of the science fiction genre in the present day. Book recommendation: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Worlds Without End's list of sci-fi classics Worlds Without End's customizable list N. K. Jemisin on the Broken Earth trilogy Edit: corrected links. Other books discussed: The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
  1. #46 – Science Fiction Today
  2. Bonus Episode: More Alternate History
  3. #45 – Young Adult Dystopias
  4. #44 – The Children's Sci-Fi Renaissance
  5. #43 – Solar System Exploration

Hard sci-fi stories about the exploration of our solar system became more popular beginning in the 1990s. In this episode, we explore how these ideas rose to prominence and have developed over the years.

Book recommendation: The Martian by Andy Weir.

The Mundane Manifesto by Geoff Ryman et al.
Kim Stanley Robinson on the Mars Trilogy.

Other works mentioned:
The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Grand Tour Series by Ben Bova
The Expanse by James S. A. Corey
Artemis by Andy Weir
Gravity
Interstellar
Ad Astra

Check out this episode!

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New Video: Exoplanets Review January 2022

So, I decided to attempt a new video series where I talk about the latest research in the field of exoplanets. I was inspired by the Raptor Chatter channel’s “Paleontology in Review” videos, and I thought there was a niche for that in exoplanet science. If all goes well, this will be a monthly series, so stay tuned.

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#42 – Blockbuster Films Part II: Superheroes Go Mainstream

#46 – Science Fiction Today A Reader's History of Science Fiction

In the final episode of Season 1, we explore the state of the science fiction genre in the present day. Book recommendation: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Worlds Without End's list of sci-fi classics Worlds Without End's customizable list N. K. Jemisin on the Broken Earth trilogy Edit: corrected links. Other books discussed: The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
  1. #46 – Science Fiction Today
  2. Bonus Episode: More Alternate History
  3. #45 – Young Adult Dystopias
  4. #44 – The Children's Sci-Fi Renaissance
  5. #43 – Solar System Exploration

As Hollywood moved into the twenty-first century, it found a new formula for superhero stories that catapulted them to some of the most popular stories in sci-fi. In this episode, we explore the history of superheroes in film and how their modern mainstream popularity has transformed the genre.

Movie recommendation: X-Men

Other works dicussed:
The Incredibles
The Dark Knight Trilogy
The Reckoners Series
by Brandon Sanderson
Worm
by John C. “Wildbow” McCrae
Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts

Check out this episode!

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Which State Has Produced the Most US Presidents?

President Joe Biden has been in office for one year today. But this post isn’t about him—not directly. This post is about all of America’s Presidents. (Yes, even that one. And that one.) On this anniversary, I decided to answer an interesting question…well, I thought it was interesting, anyway:

Which state has produced the most Presidents?

Well, that’s not a mystery. It’s Virginia. But that’s not the interesting part.

First of all, if you grew up in Ohio like I did, you may be thinking this is wrong. Ohio produced the most Presidents: eight Presidents, to be exact. And indeed, this is what I was taught. I had to take Ohio History in 4th grade and again in 7th grade, and we learned that eight of the 45 Presidents we’ve had (counting Cleveland only once) came from Ohio: both Harrisons, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Taft, and Harding. What’s going on, here?

It turns out that Ohio only produced the most Presidents if you cheat a little bit. Only seven of those eight Presidents were born in Ohio. One of them (William Henry Harrison) moved to Ohio from his birthplace in Virginia.

Speaking of, eight Presidents actually were born in Virginia: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, W. H. Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Wilson. So Virginia wins, right?

Hang on, it’s a little more complicated than that.

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#41 – Blockbuster Films Part I: The Rise of CGI

#46 – Science Fiction Today A Reader's History of Science Fiction

In the final episode of Season 1, we explore the state of the science fiction genre in the present day. Book recommendation: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Worlds Without End's list of sci-fi classics Worlds Without End's customizable list N. K. Jemisin on the Broken Earth trilogy Edit: corrected links. Other books discussed: The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
  1. #46 – Science Fiction Today
  2. Bonus Episode: More Alternate History
  3. #45 – Young Adult Dystopias
  4. #44 – The Children's Sci-Fi Renaissance
  5. #43 – Solar System Exploration

In the 1980s and ’90s, blockbuster films became a staple of Hollywood and of science fiction, and their rise went hand in hand with the development of CGI technology. In this episode, we explore the ways CGI has contributed to sci-fi over the years.

Movie recommendation: Jurassic Park

Sheldon Hall on the origin of the term “blockbuster.”
Documentary on the making of Independence Day.

Other movies discussed:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Independence Day
Avatar

Check out this episode!

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Putting My Life Back Together; or, Starting Over on New Year’s Resolutions

Okay, don’t worry. I’m being over-dramatic with that title. My life is about as much in order as it can be in the current mess, and no one actually does their New Year’s resolutions, right? But you know what? I had a good thing going, and I want to get back to it.

So here’s the deal. In 2019, after several years of struggling to make reliable progress on my creative pursuits, I came up with a new plan of revising my New Year’s resolutions every three months. First off, I set daily and/or weekly goals for things like writing—always a good thing to have if you’re a creative type. But then, I evaluated how I was doing every three months and revised them to something that worked better. Three months seems to be about right to get a clear baseline of how well I can pull things off, while not allowing myself to get stuck for too long in something that doesn’t work.

That worked surprisingly well. It wasn’t perfect, but I did better that year than I ever had before with my New Year’s resolutions.

Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation Covid attacked.

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